Online Only: ALCS -- Game 2

Tampa Bay Outlasts Boston to Even Series

Carlos Pena, right, and Fernando Perez  celebrate after Perez scores the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Carlos Pena, right, and Fernando Perez celebrate after Perez scores the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning. (Doug Pensinger - Getty Images)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008; 2:26 AM

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Oct. 11 -- For the Tampa Bay Rays, sweet survival looked like a cloud of red dirt at home plate and a scrum of bodies near first base. It sounded like a million cowbells ringing to a heavy metal soundtrack. And how did it feel? At 1:35 a.m. Sunday, after five hours 27 minutes of baseball in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, it could only feel like exhaustion.

A marathon game of tumultuous twists and unforeseen turns -- in which the Red Sox blew three leads with erstwhile ace Josh Beckett on the mound, and the Rays blew one of their own on a wild pitch in the eighth inning -- finally came to an end with one out in the bottom of the 11th, when pinch runner Fernando Perez scored from third base on a sacrifice fly to right field by B.J. Upton, giving the Rays a 9-8 win.

Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew had a chance to throw out Perez from medium-shallow right field, not far from the foul line, but his throw was off-target, up the third-base line, and the play at the plate was not close.

"We play until the last out," said Upton, once he had emerged from the scrum of players. "That's the way we did it all year."

Facing the possibility of a near-fatal 2-0 deficit in the series, instead the Rays will head to Boston for Game 3 on Monday -- where right-hander Matt Garza will face Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, Boston's true 2008 ace -- with the series tied at a game apiece.

The Rays' winning rally against right-hander Mike Timlin, the Red Sox's seventh pitcher of the night, began with a pair of no-out disputed walks -- the second of which led to the ejection of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell by home-plate umpire Sam Holbrook. On a 1-2 pitch to Jason Bartlett, Rays Manager Joe Maddon sent the runners, which prevented a double- (or even triple-) play when Bartlett grounded out to third.

After the Red Sox walked Akinori Iwamura intentionally to load the bases, Upton lifted his fly ball towards the right field line. Perez, who was kept on the Rays' roster precisely for moments such as this, blazed down the line, and only a perfect throw from Drew would have stood a chance.

"In a straight-up race," Maddon said, "I've got him [winning] over Seabiscuit."

It was a game that went by in slow motion (the first nine innings taking 4 hours 33 minutes), a game that was full of grand, sweeping flourishes -- including a combined seven home runs, an ALCS record -- but also moments of exquisite subtlety and head-spinning strategy, most of it revolving around a pair of bullpens forced into early duty by the fact neither starting pitcher made it out of the fifth inning.

By three batters into the sixth, Maddon had already exhausted his two most trusted set-up men, right-hander Grant Balfour (three batters faced, none retired) and lefty J.P. Howell, leaving 10 more outs -- in regulation, that is -- to collect while protecting a slim lead.

With the go-ahead runs on base with no outs in the eighth, Maddon, protecting an 8-7 lead, called upon closer Dan Wheeler an inning earlier than usual. Wheeler coaxed a double-play grounder from Kevin Youkilis -- with the lead runner, Dustin Pedroia, moving to third -- but wasted that achievement by throwing a 2-0 fastball to the backstop, allowing Pedroia to score the tying run. Thanks to a fortunate bounce, catcher Dioner Navarro had a chance to throw out Pedroia, with Wheeler covering home, but his underhanded toss was wide.

Wheeler would come back out for the ninth, then the 10th, then the 11th, holding the Red Sox scoreless in each. He hadn't thrown more than 31 pitches in a single outing all season, but on this night he threw 47, earning a standing ovation from the crowd of 34,904 when he finally departed two batters into the 11th.

"What he did tonight," Maddon said of Wheeler, "was truly spectacular."

Red Sox right-hander Manny Delcarmen, whose absence from Game 1 now appears to have been a hedge on Beckett's anticipated struggle Saturday night, stabilized the game in the middle innings for the visitors, facing six batters and allowing only an infield single.

Lefty Hideki Okajima then retired all six batters he faced, taking the game to the ninth, and after two outs from Justin Masterson, the Red Sox called upon closer Jonathan Papelbon, who finished off the ninth, which is his normal job, then also handled the 10th, which is not. All that was left in the Red Sox's bullpen at that point was Timlin, who didn't even make the team's roster for the first round, and long man Paul Byrd.

The fact things were so dire for the Red Sox's bullpen can be pinned squarely on the shoulders of Beckett.

In his 4 1/3 laborious innings, Beckett surrendered three home runs, blew three leads and ultimately failed to reward the faith shown in him by the Red Sox, who perhaps were guilty of believing Beckett could get it done simply because he was Josh Beckett. If only he were.

Time was, Josh Beckett with a lead in October, even in the early part of the game, was iron-clad. He cemented his reputation as the best postseason pitcher of his generation last fall, when he took the mound four times, won all four and carried the Red Sox to the World Series title, stalking the mound like a tiger protecting its turf.

But this was a diminished Beckett -- even if that fact was acknowledged by neither the Red Sox nor Beckett himself -- one who was slowed by a strained oblique muscle suffered in September and reportedly required an injection of pain-killers and anti-inflammatories before the postseason began just to get to the mound at all.

He blew a 2-0 first-inning lead when Evan Longoria, hitless in his last 13 at-bats, homered on a 3-1 pitch one batter after Carlos Pena doubled. And after Dustin Pedroia's homer off Kazmir two innings later gave the Red Sox another lead, 3-2, Beckett gave that one back, too -- and then some -- on a towering homer to left by Upton and Carl Crawford's RBI single to right.

There was no zing to Beckett's fastball, no bite to his splitter and no swagger in his step. His languid saunters back to the dugout were so slow, his outfielders frequently beat him there.

"When guys get hit around, or don't pitch the way they're supposed to," Francona said, "you have a chance to lose the game."

The third and final lead Beckett carried to the mound with him was in the bottom of the fifth -- an inning which, it can be argued, he never should have been allowed to start, given the results of the previous four. The Red Sox led, 6-5, after Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay all hit solo homers, the first two chasing Rays starter Scott Kazmir, the last coming on the fifth pitch of the night from right-hander Grant Balfour.

"We wanted Beckett to get through that fifth inning [to] set up our bullpen," Francona said of the decision to let him start the inning, "and it didn't work."

The lead would last three batters; Beckett, four. An RBI single from Pena wiped out the former, and a go-ahead RBI double into the left-field corner by Longoria, his third extra-base hit of the night, marked the end for Beckett. By that point, he had already surrendered seven runs, and an eighth was charged to his ledger when Carl Crawford greeted lefty Javier Lopez with an RBI single.

Beckett walked off the mound emotionlessly. It was a short walk. It took a long time.

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